Today is the birthday of the late George Peppard (1928-1994).
Peppard’s checkered acting career came in a series of well-known peaks and valleys, with the peaks occurring at rough ten year intervals. The better known and biggest high points for him came in the early to mid ’60s (Breakfast at Tiffany’s , How the West Was Won , The Carpetbaggers ), and the early to mid ’80s (The A Team, 1983-1987).
The middle peak for Peppard, in the early to mid 70s, is less well remembered today, but was certainly on everyone’s radar in its day. In the middle of a desert of unsuccessful movies, unrealized projects, and firings came the television crime drama Banacek (1972-1974).
For aficionados of the genre, Banacek offers myriad pleasures, not the least of which is its self-consciously quirky but still perfunctory spin on a highly formulaic platform. The formula worked so often and so well, you can’t blame producers for sticking to it. For a while it was like a gold rush. Basically it was that you would take a gone-to-seed middle-aged star with good name recognition (either from the Hollywood studio era or the golden age of television), and make him (or in rare cases her) a detective. I won’t bother listing examples, the list would be too long. It seems like ALL the older stars tried tv series in the 1970s. It just occurred to me that you could get a whole book out of it!
On the cop shows, the titles were usually simply the character’s surnames. Sometimes it would be a WASPy/cracker name like Jim Rockford, but the hippest ones usually seemed to be ethnic. Irish (Madigan, Brannigan, McCoy, O’Hara) and Italian (Columbo, Toma, Baretta, Petrocelli) were especially popular. Kojak of course was Greek. Or they might have some other twist: Cannon was the FAT cop. Barnaby Jones was the OLD cop. Police Woman was the LADY cop. Ironside was the DISABLED cop. And then they would set it in a different American city, and make the setting a co-star. Often the series seemed to be at least partially ABOUT the setting. Columbo was ABOUT Los Angeles. McCloud was ABOUT New York. I can’t think of The Streets of San Francisco without thinking above all about pictures of the city. And then, lastly, there would be some different angle on the KIND of detective the hero was. Frequently, it could be quite preposterous but the audience wouldn’t seem to care. Quincy was a coroner (coroners don’t run around solving crimes. They really don’t). McMillan was the police commissioner of San Francisco! (I take it back. Big city police commissioners TOTALLY run around solving crimes! Not!)
So in cooking up Banacek for Peppard, it’s almost (almost?) like they went down a checklist of all of these different situational factors to come up with the premise. Banacek was a wealthy Polish-American playboy who lived on Beacon Hill in Boston and worked as an insurance investigator. It was presented as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, a spin-off of their highly successful Sunday Mystery Movie, which presented Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife.
Other than Quincy and those other three shows, all of which ran for years, Banacek was the next most successful of the many new series that were tried in the context of this franchise, but it only ran for two years. And you don’t even really need to watch it to see why. For me, the weakest element is Banacek’s job. He is usually investigating suspicious thefts, as opposed to murders, and the stakes are his percentage of funds recovered on behalf of an insurance company. Funds he apparently doesn’t need, because he had a chauffeur, a fleet of cars, and a Beacon Hill townhouse. His stool pigeon is an antiques dealer! Forgive me if I’m not on the edge of my seat.
The other aspect may be a little subtler for those who didn’t live through the time. It has more to do with fashion, style and attitude. Study the photo above. Radiate a 60s energy? I think so. That look managed to coast a ways into the early 70s for sure. But at some point in the mid 70s there was a radical shift. Starsky and Hutch would be the coming thing in short order, making Banacek’s “Thomas Crowne” pretensions to hipness seem antiquated.
Why someone as WASPY as Peppard was cast as a Pole one can’t say, but because of it the show got high-marks for defying stereotypes. The more common depiction of the time was more like that of Max Gail’s Wojciechowicz on Barney Miller, large, muscle-headed and dumb. Whereas, Peppard always seemed large, muscle-headed and sophisticated! Go figure.